Rebecca Lindenberg on her relationship to form, the “virtuosity of attention,” and her book Love, An Index.
Love, An Index by Rebecca Lindenberg is an emotionally wrenching read. In less than one hundred pages, Lindenberg explores the elemental and complex nature of love in a way that feels expansive. Moments of beauty, despair, and meaning are communicated honestly, wisely, and economically. The poems in this collection appear in a wide range of forms (the short lyric, the index, the illuminated manuscript), which would be confusing if her focus weren’t so tightly on one vital question: What is love and what do we do when the person we love is gone?
This question takes on a special urgency in this case. In 2009 Lindenberg lost her partner, the celebrated poet Craig Arnold. As the collection unfolds so do some of the details of their life together as two young journeymen poets: their moments of conflict, their intense erotic connection, their shared love of words, food, travel. Many of the poems directly address Arnold, and this overheard conversation is part of the intimate quality of the book. There is also a novelistic feel to the way the narrative is woven through the collection. This makes the book hard to put down, though the narrative is never delivered completely or chronologically.
But what really differentiates Love, An Index from other elegiac works is the eponymous long poem at its center, written in the form of an index. The index—a form that is more often dispassionate, arbitrary, and artificial—allows Lindenberg to explore love and grief on many levels simultaneously, and the heartbreak sneaks up on you and then overwhelms you. By choosing the index, Lindenberg seems to be rejecting the notion that an intuitive form exists to tell the story of this relationship, or to speak about love at all. Lindenberg wants to say it all. Or as Lindenberg puts it: ”... I want/ to gather everything into this poems now/ but can’t. All is gloss…”
In semiotics an indexical sign is one that points directly to what it refers to (smoke is an indexical sign of fire). I thought about that as I read and reread Lindenberg’s index. It occurred to me that these poems could be thought of as an indexical sign of the writer’s love and grief, the smoke rising from an intense relationship that ended tragically and too soon. In pointing to the act of trying to gather everything, Lindenberg is able to point more emphatically at what happened and what was lost.
Elizabeth Clark Wessel How did you become interested in the index as a form? Do you know of any other poets who have used the index in this way before? Can you tell me about the process of writing/compiling it?
Rebecca Lindenberg The index suggested itself as a solution to a series of problems. Perhaps the most important is this: I wanted to tell a sustained story, but I did not want to tell it in a conventional narrative form. I am very wary of anything that appears too tidily as a “whole” story. Leaving aside that it’s limited by my own unfortunate subjectivity, my memory is full of gaps and doubts, and I wanted the story to reflect those things. I’m also very ambivalent about the way conventional narratives organize time into a kind of hierarchy of causes and effects, because in fact I think most incidents in a life or a relationship exist in such a complex network of influences, something three-dimensional would be more apt. (I actually experimented with that, too, but I did not have a big enough apartment, or enough tape). Which leads to another problem I had to solve—the unwieldiness of it all. I don’t think the role of the writer is to take the unwieldy and learn to wield it; I think the role of the writer is to exist as candidly and as hopefully (and strivingly) as possible among your own understanding.
I don’t know of many poets who have used the index in precisely this way before, but I do know of many writers who’ve used the abecedarian, or the idea of a scholarly gloss. While I was working on my project, someone gave me a copy of Jenny Boully’s The Body: An Essay, which as you know is written entirely in footnotes. That speaks to my interest in writing a kind of reference to a “main” or “authoritative” text that can never exist. Ander Monson has an essay called “An Index for X, and the Origin of Fire,” which I think is a really neat hybrid piece. But perhaps more importantly, my index concerns itself with the notion of fragment—and from Sappho forward, I am certain we can all think of poets who write in (or whose work comes to us as) fragments. Pound’s encyclopedic Cantos, especially the Pisan Cantos, were very instructive for me in this regard.
I suppose you also have to remember that I was reading for my doctoral exams and working on various critical projects, so I was spending a great deal of time with indices and compendia. If you find yourself looking up “Venus” and “Lepidoptera” and “Baudelaire, Charles” and “Nether Stowey” and “sex vs. tiger” enough, you begin to appreciate the marvelous juxtaposition between concepts and allusions of great passion and powerful legacy and the strangely organized, academic form into which they’ve all been handily crammed. This, too, was on my mind—not as an irony, but as a collapse of seeming binaries. Too long, I think, we’ve been at ease with the notion that passion and intellect are separate, even opposed. I am not at all comfortable will this old-school compartmentalization of experience and imagination and identity and inquiry. So that, too, became part of my index’s raison d’etre.
ECW Other non-traditional forms in your book include the footnote, the catalogue, an illuminated text, the phrasebook, the Facebook update etc., but you also write (very successfully) in more traditional lyric forms. Do you think that your work is heading more toward or away from the short lyric? And yes, forgive how general this is, but how do you relate to form in general? Is it a starting point for your work or a destination?
RL I think my relationship to form is always changing—partly because I am, I hope, still evolving as a poet and human, but also because different subjects or projects present different problems to be solved. I do pretty consistently think of form as a way of solving a problem for content, and perhaps that is my relationship to it.
Since the book has come out, a couple of different people have asked how I start a poem—with an idea, or a story, or a form, or a scrap of language or sound. The only good answer I have is: Yes. And also: How the poem comes does not always determine what it becomes. There are parts of the process that I am content to experience as mysterious.
All this being the case, I’m not sure what direction my poetry is likely to move in. I hope all of them.
ECW You reference other writers extensively in Love, An Index (especially in the poem “Love, N1”). What books were most important to you while you were writing this? What books are most important to you right now?
RL I will have to let the poems speak for themselves, there. Obviously, Craig Arnold was and continues to be extremely important to me as both a beloved partner and best friend, and as a poet and thinker. Experience seemed to suggest itself to Craig as language—sometimes those were his own words (describing tadpoles as “plump little commas” or a spicy Thai meal as “hotter than the hood of an abandoned car.”) And sometimes they were someone else’s: I vividly remember wandering idly around in the fields on the side of Mount Parnassus in Delphi, Greece, surrounded by blood-red poppies and clutches of other wildflowers, roiling with bees. Almost as though no-one else were present, Craig mumbled “ . . . and live alone in the bee-loud glade.” That way of being, wherein you just splice the poetry right into your DNA, that I learned from Craig.
I also learn a lot from Frank O’Hara, who I find to be imminently likeable, and from Sappho, who passes through lyric intensity to lyric ferocity. I learn from the wild imagination and intimate expression of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and from the sublimely experimental Emily Dickinson. I learn about the rough physicality of language from C.D. Wright, and I learn about serendipity from Andre Breton. I learn about managing ideas and information in poems from William Carlos Williams and from Anne Carson. I learn about managing silence in poems from John Cage. I learn how to end a poem from Vera Pavlova and from Pablo Neruda. I learn about new ways of deploying structure and sentence from Haryette Mullen, and I learn how to look at things from a lot of poets, including Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, who writes of the humble dragonfly: “For some blood must flow in a wing that appears to be glass.” That virtuosity of attention, I find exquisitely thrilling.
But right now, the person whose work most concerns me is not a poet, it is the Italian proto-archaeologist and engraver Piranesi, because I’m making an attempt at a project that inquires into the relationship between ruin and imagination, lyric and nostalgia, landscape and the body. If you’re curious, you can find links to Piranesi’s “Imaginary Prisons” here.
ECW How did you start writing? Have you always wanted to be a writer?
RL Well, my family will tell you that when I was little, it was my great ambition to be a bus driver. Then, a paleontologist. Or a marine biologist. I guess I wanted to work with monsters. But poetry as a profession? I had to get all the way through a rigorous liberal arts education to become that silly.
But in all seriousness, I think I’ve always been the kind of person who has tried to make a language for what I experience, or what I feel is missing from my experience, or what I imagine, or what I inquire after. I’ve just always been elbow-deep in the viscera of language. But then, I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way about words—I don’t know why some become writers and others don’t. Perhaps some kind of stressor, or a viral trigger.
ECW The details of your personal life are inextricable from the poems in Love, An Index. How do you navigate the balance between your privacy and your artistic practice?
RL “I have not told the half of what I’ve seen.”
Elizabeth Clark Wessel’s poems and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in DIAGRAM, A Public Space, Guernica, Lana Turner Journal, and The Laurel Review, among others. Her chapbook, Whither Weather, was chosen for the Midwest Chapbook Series. She lives in Brooklyn and is an editor at Argos Books & Circumference, a journal of poetry in translation.